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Can UCLA Basketball Regain Elite Status? The Window is Closing

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The following post is from BruinBlue. It is being published here with his permission. - BN Editors.

By any reasonable measure of the term, UCLA does not currently have an elite basketball program. That actually hurts to write, but it is true. If we define "elite" as a program which is usually in the top ten, usually earns a top two seed in the NCAA tournament, we are not elite. North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, are elite. Kentucky is essentially there, too, irrespective of whether we condemn the way they do it. Connecticut may not be quite there, but  is obviously very close.  Those programs certainly don't win a title every year, but they are usually strongly in the running; and by tourney time have earned a seed which strongly positions them to make a big run.

In the Steve Lavin era, UCLA was a top two seed one time, his first year. In the Ben Howland era, UCLA has been a top two seed three times out of eight years. In the other five years, UCLA was no higher than a six seed, or did not make the tournament. Certainly better, but not elite. And of course UCLA has not won a title in any of those seasons. In fact, we have won one national title in the 37 years since the greatest coach of all time in any sport, John Wooden, retired. In that period, Duke has won four titles. Carolina has won four, and more are soon to come. Connecticut has won three, as has Indiana, though nothing at all lately from that program. Kentucky has three as well. Schools with two include Louisville, Kansas, Michigan State, Florida. You will note that five schools have won 17 of those titles; nine schools have won a total of 25 of them. For all the talk of parity, the elite schools ultimately win almost all of the titles. And we have one title in 37 years.

Obviously, we were elite for three years in a row under Ben Howland. I don't think that being elite is something that goes on and off, so certainly you can have a down year and still be elite. But not three years in a row in which you go #6 seed, losing season, #7 seed. And now, with Malcolm Lee almost certainly going pro, we are looking at an upcoming season where we will be at best on the outskirts of the top 25. Four years in a row. And after that? Well, if we have the homerun recruiting season we are desperately hoping for, we will still be too young and inexperienced to be much more than at the low end of the top 20. If we have a good but not great recruiting season, then it's worse than that. It is certainly possible that the year after that one, 2013/2014, UCLA could have a big year. But how long does anyone expect any new big-time recruit to stay here? One year? Two at most?

Squarely facing facts, we are losing players too fast, and not sufficiently replacing them. We all know that every school loses players early, but we lose ours more regularly and more quickly. At least some of the Carolina and Duke players stay. This year, we will lose the only two players who have any legitimate chance to be drafted. We almost always do. Not all schools will, and that is the difference. And then of course, we have been struggling to recruit consistently well. We are not recruiting as well as the elite schools, though we do get at least one really good recruit in most years. Carolina wins titles because they have kept some players longer than expected, and because they recruit like demons. Kentucky recruits a top class every year, and Kansas usually does as well. Arizona is starting to do that. We have not been able to recruit even one top point guard for three years, even though that position was available to any talented freshman who could come in and simply outplay Jerime Anderson. We are now dipping into the ranks of JCs and transfers, clearly a sign that we are having major problems in recruiting.

So there are real problems and concerns. They will not go away by ignoring them or pretending that we are in much better shape than we are, or by saying "We are UCLA! Look at all those championship banners! No one has a better program than we do!" This willful delusion on the part of the athletic department and too many fans, has contributed to our many terrible coaching hires; the belief that was held by too many for about 30 years, that virtually anybody could run this program. The result of course was that we have won but the one national title in 37 years.

So what about Ben Howland? Howland was one of the only two solid hires made in that period, the other being Larry Brown. Howland is one of the better coaches in the college game, in terms of fundamentals. He is also a good person, always supportive of his players when talking to the media, unlike some coaches. And he is very appreciative of UCLA, and of course of John Wooden. However, that is not the whole story. As stated, we have not been elite for three years, now going on four and probably at least five. One can look for excuses and explanations for this or that defection or missed or overrated recruit. But ultimately the bottom line becomes the program's status. And our current status points to there being some significant problems, most clearly our inability to keep any player even one year longer than the first year he has any chance to be drafted; and our inability to recruit at a consistently high level.

Is this going to change? It is unlikely that the first one is. That means that we will expect to lose every talented player within two years, unless injuries or deficiencies keep their level of play down; in which case we will lose them after the first season in which they actually play well. That puts a tremendous burden on the staff to recruit at a top five level every year. If we cannot do it, we will further entrench ourselves in non-elite status. Also, the style of play being taught here is not really conducive to the kind of one-and-done player that Kentucky gets. We actually need veteran rosters which have mastered Howland's defense and deliberate offensive schemes.

Is this due to a personality flaw in Coach Howland? Is his temperament and/or his style encouraging our players to rush for the exits as soon as possible? I actually think that putting the question in this way is counter-productive. Who knows exactly what is going on? Different players have different expectations and personalities. It may be that Los Angeles players are less willing to play Howland's style than athletes at Pittsburgh or some blue-collar town. It may be that the Jrue Holiday saga helped to poison the well; or that too many AAU coaches conduct an unfair whispering campaign against Howland, abetted by some UCLA-hating members of the media. It may all be terribly unfair--but it is indeed the current reality, and cannot be wished away.

We can just sit back and watch all of this happen, hoping for the best. We could also simply inure ourselves to it, feeling that, well, UCLA has too many impediments to elite status in basketball. We are honorable, while too many schools are not. Our academic requirements are higher than most. We are hurt by being in Los Angeles, where the Lakers rule, and there is an NBA mentality. Our fan base is not as passionate as it is at other places. We are simply a program which is not destined or situated to be elite; we were amazingly fortunate to have the greatest coach ever, who made us the greatest program ever, but that period has been over for almost 40 years. Look at where we are in football; far, far from elite. So why should we expect to be elite in basketball? We will always have a better chance to be competitive in basketball than in football, but we do not have what it takes to be elite, not for more than a couple of years out of any decade, at most.

And that may well be the reality. The proof ultimately does show up in the pudding. Either we are not set up to be elite, and thus should be thankful for what we have; or we are not doing it the right way. And if the latter, than one has to consider what has to be changed, and that is stressful, so it is easier for many to prefer staying the course, hoping for the best, sugar-coating the present realities and overrating the future possibilities.

It is hard for me to contemplate still another season of no legitimate championship hopes, the fourth in a row. After a while, it will be hard for most of you, to realize that the best we can hope for is a couple of wins in the tourney, while the elites battle for the title once again. We may be in the unfortunate state of having a coach who is good enough to win enough games with flawed squads, to maintain the status quo, but who is compromised enough in terms of ability to recruit and keep enough athletic and skilled players, to get us back to elite status. And if that were true, what could we do? We can't fire Coach Howland, that would look ridiculous. Some programs might be bold enough to do something like that, but certainly not UCLA. And if we sort of encouraged him to leave, would he? And if he did, whom could we actually hire who might elevate our status?  Or would we just end up with one of those nondescript pretty good coaches who are found at programs which win their 20 games and yet are never serious championship contenders?

Well, if one ever expects the UCLA administration to be ahead of the curve in thinking about or improving our status, he is a true optimist. Over the years, the UCLA Athletic Department has made Nero look like an activist. Their approach is to sit and wait...and wait...and rely on public relations a soft L.A. media, or that omnipresent "First to 100!" triumph to buffer them. My belief is that we are in a crisis stage with regard to our basketball program; not as to whether we can usually win 20 games and make the tourney, but whether we can legitimately move back to elite status, and stay there. My feeling is that if we don't get there very soon, so many other programs will have passed us in status and public perception, that it will be incredibly difficult for us to get back there again. Thirty years ago, this was not the case; there were not that many big-time programs, and it was always pretty certain that the right coach could quickly catapult us back to the top. Not any longer.  In this era, we need a major commitment, and a forward-thinking and proactive approach from an athletic department which has not shown that for many decades, or our fate will be pretty much sealed.

-          BruinBlue